“Who bathes in their clothes?” she asked, widening her eyes innocently. “And that was a mutual idea, thank you very much. I think we should do that again and soon before it gets too cold to even walk outside. But I could spend all morning listing things that you’ve done that are either forbidden by the Duke and Duchess or prohibited for the Maiden to do, and up until now, nothing has happened. The gods haven’t appeared and deemed you unworthy.”
“That’s true,” I acknowledged as I smoothed a crease from the skirt of my gown.
“Of course, it is.” She plucked up a small, round powdery pastry and popped it into her mouth. Somehow, she didn’t get a single dusting of sugar on her. Meanwhile, if I so much as breathed in the direction of those pastries, I ended up with a fine coating of white powder in places that made no sense. “So, when do we go back?”
“I…I don’t think I should.”
“You don’t want to?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it and tried not to fall down that rabbit hole. The problem was that I wanted to go back.
When I was lying in bed and hadn’t been obsessively rewinding the time spent with Hawke, reliving the razor-edged yearning and thrill his kiss had dragged out of me, I’d wondered if he had come back like he promised, and if I had done the right thing by leaving.
Of course, in the eyes of my guardians and the gods, it had been the right thing, but had it been so for me? Should I have stayed and experienced infinitely more before there might not be any more chances?
My gaze lifted to the windows that faced the west portion of the Rise. The dark shapes of the guards patrolling the ledge were the only movement. Was Hawke out there? Why was I even wondering that?
Because there was more than just a small part of me that wished I’d stayed, and I knew it would be a long time before I stopped wondering about what would’ve happened if I’d waited. Would he have carried out whatever I’d wanted?
I didn’t even know what that would’ve entailed. I had ideas. I had my imagination. I had other people’s stories of their experiences, but they were not mine. They were just thin, transparent copies of the real thing.
And I knew if I returned, I would go back in hopes that he’d be there. That was why I shouldn’t go back.
Looking at the open wardrobe, I saw first the white veil with its delicate gold chains, and a heaviness settled over me. I could already feel its substantial weight, even though the material was made out of the finest, lightest silk. When it was first slipped over my head at age eight, I’d panicked, but after ten years, I should’ve grown used to it by now.
While I no longer felt like I couldn’t breathe or see while wearing it, it still felt heavy.
Hanging beside it was the only color in my wardrobe, a splash of red among a sea of white. It was a ceremonial gown tailored for the upcoming Rite. The dress had arrived the morning before, and I hadn’t tried it on yet. It would be the first time I was allowed to attend—allowed to wear anything other than white and be seen without the veil. Of course, I would be masked, like everyone else.
The only reason I was allowed to attend this Rite when all the others had been forbidden, was because it would be the last Rite before my Ascension.
Whatever excitement I felt about the Rite was tempered by the fact that it would be the last.
Tawny rose and drifted to one of the windows. “The mist hasn’t come in a while.”
Tawny had a habit of jumping from topic to topic, but this switch was jarring. “What made you think of that?”
“I don’t know.” She tucked back a loose curl. “Actually, I do. I overheard Dafina and Loren talking last night,” she said. “They claimed they heard from one of the Huntsmen that the mist has been gathering beyond the Blood Forest.”
“I hadn’t heard that.” My stomach knotted as I remembered Finley, and I wished I hadn’t eaten so many slices of bacon.
“I probably shouldn’t have brought it up.” She turned from the window. “It’s just that…it has been decades since the mist even neared the capital. It’s not something we’d have to worry about there.”
No matter where we were, the mist was something to worry about. Just because it hadn’t gotten close in decades didn’t mean it wouldn’t, but I didn’t say that.
She pushed away from the window, coming back to the table to kneel next to where I sat. “Can I be honest with you for a moment?”
My brows rose. “Aren’t you always?”
“Well, yes, but this…is different.”
More than curious to know what she was thinking about, I nodded for her to go on.
Tawny drew in a deep breath. “I know our lives are different, as were our pasts, and as our futures will be, but you treat the Ascension as if it may very well be your death when it’s the exact opposite. It’s life. It’s a new beginning. It is a Blessing—”
“You’re starting to sound like the Duchess,” I teased.
“But it’s the truth.” She reached over and clasped my hand. “In a few months, you won’t be dead, Poppy. You’ll be alive and no longer bound by these rules. You’ll be in the capital.”
“I’ll have been given to the gods,” I corrected her.
“And how amazing is that? You will experience something very few people do. I know… I know you fear that you won’t return from them, but you’re the Queen’s favorite Maiden.”
“I’m her only Maiden.”
Her eyes rolled. “You know that’s not why.”
The Queen had done more for me than what was ever required of her, but that didn’t change that my Ascension would be nothing like hers.
“And when you come back, Ascended, I will be right by your side. Just think of the mischief we can make.” Tawny squeezed my hand, and I saw that she truly believed that would happen.
But it wasn’t a certainty. I had no idea what it truly meant to be given to the gods. Although every small detail seemed to be documented about the history of the kingdom, there were a few things that weren’t written about. I’d never been able to find anything about previous Maidens, and I’d asked Priestess Analia over a hundred times what it meant to be given to the gods, and the answer was always the same.
A Maiden doesn’t question the gods’ plans. She has faith in them without knowledge of them.
Maybe I truly wasn’t worthy of being a Maiden, because I found it hard to have faith in anything without knowledge of it.
But Tawny did. As did Vikter and Rylan, and literally everyone else I knew. Even Ian.
None of them had been given to the gods, though.
I searched Tawny’s eyes, looking for just the slightest hint of fear. “You’re not afraid at all, are you?”
“Of the Ascension?” She rose, locking her fingers together in front of her. “Nervous? Yes. Afraid? No. I’m excited to begin a new chapter.”
To begin a life that was her own, where she could wake up and eat whenever she pleased, spend her days however she wanted, and with whomever she desired instead of being my perpetual shadow.
Of course, she wasn’t afraid. And while I didn’t feel the same, I had not once taken into consideration what it meant for her.
For the most part, Tawny was always more than willing to take part in whatever adventure I conjured up, and often suggested some herself. But if the gods were watching, especially this close to the Ascension, they could find her unworthy for taking part. That wasn’t something I’d just now thought about, but it hadn’t struck me with such clarity before that my attitude towards the Ascension could ruin her eagerness.
Guilt surfaced, the taste of it sour in the back of my throat. “I’m so selfish.”
Tawny blinked, bewildered. “What makes you say that?”
“I’ve most likely tarnished your excitement with all my doom and gloom,” I told her. “I haven’t really thought about how excited you must be.”
“Well, when you put it that way,” she said and then laughed, the sound soft and warm. “Honestly, Poppy, you haven’t. How you feel about the Ascension hasn’t affected how I feel.”
“I’m relieved to hear that, but still, I should be more excited for you. That’s what…”—I took a thin breath—“that’s what friends do.”
“Have you been excited for me? Happy?” she asked. “Even though you’re worried for yourself?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Then you have done what a friend does.”
Maybe that was true, but I promised myself I would be better, starting with no longer risking her Ascension by involving her in my escapades. I could live with the dire consequences of being found unworthy because it would be my life and my own actions that led to it, but I wouldn’t do that to Tawny.
I couldn’t live with that.
After I took supper in my room later that day, Vikter knocked on my door. When I looked up at his face, golden and weathered by life on the Rise and years in the sun, I didn’t think about knowing where he was the night before and the subsequent awkwardness. I saw his expression and knew something had occurred.
“What’s happened?” I whispered.
“We’ve been summoned,” he said, and my heart lurched in my chest. There were only two reasons why we’d be summoned. One would be the Duke, and the other was equally terrible, but for far different reasons. “There’s a cursed.”
Without wasting one unnecessary second, we left my room and the Castle through the old servants’ access. We then moved like ghosts through the city until we found ourselves standing before an old, battered door.
The white handkerchief tacked just below the handle was the only reason the home in the Lower Ward of Masadonia was distinguishable from the other squat, narrow houses stacked on top of one another.
Glancing over his shoulder to where two City Guards chatted under the yellow glow of a streetlamp, Vikter quickly pulled the handkerchief off the door and slipped it into a pocket inside his dark cloak. The small, white cloth was a symbol of the network of people who believed death, no matter how violent or destructive, deserved dignity.